It can often feel hopeless to be an activist seeking social change on an issue where most people seem opposed or at best indifferent to it. However, according to a new book by Professor Cass Sunstein, we should not lose hope because significant social changes often come when we least expect it. Sunstein, a law professor at the Chicago Law School for 27 years and a Harvard Law Professor since 2012, was also an administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs during Obama’s first term. In 2018, he was awarded the Holberg Prize for having “reshaped our understanding of the relationship between the modern regulatory state and constitutional law.” Currently the most cited American legal scholar Sunstein has written on a diverse array of topics that include cloning, Wikipedia, animal rights, pornography, and even Bob Dylan’s lyrics, despite his specialty being constitutional law.
How Change Happens (whose original title was Why Societies Go Whoosh) started 25 years ago with a draft of what is now chapter three. However, Sunstein hit a speed bump on the way in the 1990s and the 2000s, as he got distracted by other projects. The book is divided into three parts and sixteen chapters. In Sunstein’s words, the chapters “do not make for a unitary narrative,” but “they are connected by an effort to connect findings in behavioral science with enduring issues in law and policy, and by an effort to show how seemingly small perturbations can often produce big shifts.”
The first three chapters explore the power of social norms, the importance of social cascades, the phenomenon of group polarization, and the expressive function of law. A general theme is the shift from the “unsayable” and even the unthinkable to the conventional wisdom and vice versa. Chapters 4 to 11 explore the uses and limits of “nudges” as tools for change. His question here is how public or private institutions might affect behavior and sometimes “unleash” it, through seemingly small steps. In these chapters, Sunstein raises the following questions in the fields of law, economics, and political philosophy. Chapters 12 to 16 explore issues at the intersection of public policy, behavioral science, and political philosophy. Sunstein argues that transparency is often crucial because it promotes accountability and also allows choosers to obtain information that they can use to increase overall public welfare.
So, what are the mechanisms through which such changes occur? How can a society that seemed to support the status quo bring about change in years, months, or even weeks? Sunstein explores those mechanisms, identifies the triggers that lead to social change, and also does not fail to include the possibility of a backlash that sometimes occurs when a new social norm is promoted. Groups within the society reject those changes, refusing to let go of the existing norms.
For Sunstein, even the smallest of change can have significant impacts, particularly when it happens in an environment where the support for existing norms have declined, revealing hidden preferences that might have existed all along. Once the hidden preference begins to see daylight, the support for that existing norm begins to disappear, creating a tipping point as a result and ultimately a “cascade,” after which the new norm finds a secure footing in the society.
The key to such changes appear to lie on the shoulders of “norm entrepreneurs” who step up and draw attention to the harmful consequences of existing norms. These people are alert to the existence of collective action problems and often carry out this role by pressing a change in the public and private conduct by insisting that most people secretly oppose those norms as well and thus eliminating the pluralistic ignorance in the process.
The definition itself brings to mind two people who neatly fit the description of a norm entrepreneur, although standing from entirely different points of view: Greta Thunberg and Donald Trump. Greta took the initiative to begin a movement that advocates protecting the environment by asking us to rethink our existing habits, practices and norms that create an adverse impact on our ecosystem and on the overall wellbeing of the planet.
On the dark side of the moon, Donald Trump as a norm entrepreneur, has broken every social norm that defines the role of a president-elect and later as the commander-in-chief of the United States by insisting on the existence latent opinions in his favor. He can be better defined by another term coined by Sunstein: professional polarizer or polarization entrepreneurs. These people have political agenda and intend to create spheres in which like-minded people can hear a particular point of view from one or more people and participate in a deliberate discussion in which certain point of view becomes entrenched or strengthened. Fitting the description, Trump succeeded in harnessing public sentiment and ultimately in creating cascades where he is discarding political correctness in exchange for normalizing hate-speech.
It would seem that Sunstein’s unleashing thesis offers a reasonably accurate analysis of the forces at work in the resurgence of climate change movement as well as the rise of white nationalism in the US. We can thus see that Sunstein’s theory of change appears to describe at least some forces that create social change.
Another phenomenon that affects social change that Sunstein discusses is what he describes as “enclave deliberation,” which is “deliberation within small or not-so-small groups of like-minded people.” For Sunstein, this enclave deliberation “is, simultaneously, a potential danger to social stability, a source of social fragmentation, and a safeguard against social injustice and unreasonableness.” (35) On the positive side, enclave deliberation, particularly in a heterogeneous community, tends to create clusters of like-minded people who may explore and press the boundaries of existing norms and ultimately create spaces in which those new norms can emerge and spread to other enclaves.
While Sunstein’s approach tells us a lot about how social change occurs, it is somewhat incomplete. Sunstein rightfully identifies the necessity of addressing social norms in order to change something in the society the role of social norm needs to be addressed. Change still needs norm entrepreneurs who can manipulate nudges in effective ways to unleash hidden public preferences to create norm cascades, but sometimes it is not enough. Norm entrepreneurs also have venture outside the world of nudges and do more, such as organize other like-minded people, protest, sue, boycott, and engage in social media campaigns and other collective-action options. While nudges are certainly effective, as Sunstein has shown through a thorough empirical research, nudges cannot accomplish every social change on its own.
The first three chapters of the book are undoubtedly its most thought-provoking and engaging part. Sunstein niftily conducts an archeological excavation on several historical and more recent events, connecting mazes and fitting the puzzle pieces, ensuring that the reader experiences a guided tour through a catacomb of opportunities and pitfalls that led to those events. For instance, he lays out the abrupt formation of the Communist Revolution in Russia and how its speed had even shocked Lenin. Other examples include the #MeToo movement, Arab Spring, legalization of gay marriage and the rising white supremacy in the United States, and more. However, I wish that Sunstein had spent more time elaborating on the concepts and terms introduced in the first part (i.e., the first three chapters) of the book. For instance, it would be interesting to know more about these aspects of change. For instance, how do we know if we are close to reaching a tipping point? What are the signs, and are there any ways to forecast them? Sunstein barely scratches the surface of “tipping points,” whereas “nudge” (which is Sunstein’s magic word), occupies more than half the book.
However, contrary to the common criticism of his work where he is accused of imposing a solution to every problem through “nudging,” Sunstein admits that not all norms are can be altered by these small, yet deliberate efforts and admits that sometimes when nudges fail and when the greater public welfare is at stake, more aggressive, and sometimes costly, efforts are called for.
Sunstein’s How Change Happens is a timely contribution to the growing number of academic publications on scholarship on spurring social change. While most of that research offers retrospective analyses on how social change has come about through digging into the success stories of social movements, such as Lester Crutchfield’s book of the same name, Sunstein offers more of a theoretical analysis of the potential triggers of social change. While some of Sunstein’s solutions lean more towards the technocratic side and the most pressing problems of today will certainly not be solved by technocrats, Sunstein pitches important ideas to us that can help guide social changes, both large and small. Cass Sunstein’s How Change Happens can indeed prove to be an instruction manual for the norm entrepreneurs who strive to discard banal norms, as they carry on their drive to unleash hidden preference, create norm cascades and embed new norms.
Afsana Tazreen writes from Canada.